In my 20+ years serving in key roles both in the public and private sector and as CEO of Atabey Consulting Group, there has never been a time that my role in a process has not prioritized what is right for the greater good. On March 21st, Governor Phil Murphy shut down all non essential businesses- churches included. I rose to the task of creating and leading a compassionate response plan for the over 400 plus women and men that make up the New Jersey Coalition of Latino Pastors and Ministers.
Last Thursday, I had the opportunity to participate in Governor Phil Murphy’s 2nd Wave Virtual Community Forum to share how such a plan resulted in the distribution of 5,000 hot meals a day since the height of the pandemic, 1,000 weekly emergency in partnership with National Action Network and Reverend Al Sharpton, setting up provisional shelters in churches in partnership with the NJ Reentry Corporation and Former Governor Jim McGreevey, social services, applications for rent and utility assistance, food stamps, job placement, COVID testing, mental health and addiction services referrals, to name a few. The mobilization of this plan has proven to be successful and leaves us excited for the future of our community outreach efforts.
As the nation is shaken to its core by the pandemic, public health and safety are priority number one (#1). These priorities are crucial for our communities of color, which have been disproportionately affected by the virus. Among the 475,000 undocumented people living in New Jersey, Latinos make up approximately 300,000. Many factors contribute to these asymmetrical effects; these include: higher rates of comorbid conditions, unequal socioeconomic factors and inadequate access to timely healthcare coupled with the rising intensification of anti-immigrant propaganda through politics of fear and intimidation that have dominated rhetoric and molded public perception. Immigrants are aware of this climate and are weary of engaging with public services which could greatly be of assistance during these times out of fear of potential deportation. This makes it particularly difficult to reach this population during these trying times when the community needs assistance. The church is seen as a haven from persecution. The NJCLPM understands that community members are fearful and aims to position itself as the bridge between church and state.
In partnership with Governor Phil Murphy and his Office, the New Jersey Coalition of Latino Pastors and Ministers under the leadership of Reverend Raul Ruiz, Reverend Bolivar Flores and Bishop Rodriguez, has implemented a compassionate COVID-19 response plan. This comprehensive response to the virus could not have been developed without having direct and continuous access to the Governor’s office and senior staff.
Our plan included: disseminating critical and timely information, promoting public health and safety; dispelling misinformation about church closings and openings; weekly virtual meetings with guest speakers, updates and training that lead to successful transitioning into virtual ministries and public health awareness campaigns to keep Latino faith communities safe.
The aforementioned transition included training seminars to teach our members how to use smart technology tools, social media platforms and applications to hold services, connect with congregants, receive offerings, pray over the sick and share words of comfort to those who lost a loved one. In these difficult times, we must distance ourselves from those around us to keep safe. However, a myriad of technologies exist that allow us to remain connected in a time when we all ache for some sense of comfort and reassurance. Many folks are unaware of the existence of such technologies or simply struggle to navigate their way around these applications. In providing training around this, we can help make these unprecedented times a little more bearable.
Since July, our churches have been providing space to do COVID-19 testing – with a minimum of 250 people being tested. Our work together has allowed us to get to the hardest to reach in our Latino community to keep everyone in NJ safe and healthy regardless of legal status, appearance, where you live or ethnic background. Testing plays a major role in controlling the spread of COVID-19 and managing the pandemic in the long term. Our churches are pillars in the Latino community, a population sector disproportionately ravaged by the virus. Therefore, it is crucial that we continue to offer our community these services in a time when they desperately need all the support they can receive.
Wendy S. Martinez is the Government/Public Affairs Director of New Jersey Coalition Latino Pastors & Ministers